Vaclav Havel: writer and politician

Politicians are often writers. We have the examples of Lenin, Trotsky, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and many others from past and present. But Vaclav Havel [1936-2011], once president of Czechoslovakia, and later of the Czech Republic, although he may not have written as much, was more diverse and versatile in his writing. He has received several awards, including the Gandhi Peace Prize for keeping “the flame of democracy” alive at a time when Czechoslovakia was under communist rule. His writings reflect the struggle and unrest in Czechoslovakia, especially before the formation of the Czech Republic.

He started out as a poet, but was not very successful. It was his plays that made him famous. His first play, The garden festival, was produced in 1963, and is a satire on bureaucracy. This was followed by The Memorandum, in 1965. These two topical pieces explore the use of language. In The garden festival, the protagonist rises in the bureaucratic organization, because he learns to use an “official” language, that is to say one which does not have much meaning for most people. In The Memorandum, the characters use artificial language, intended to facilitate communication, but are ultimately unable to communicate at all. In 1968, in his play The increased difficulty of concentration, he again focused on the language and poked fun at the indiscriminate use of socialist and other terminology.

His plays, translated into several languages, are gaining popularity abroad. His work was banned for a few years in his country, but in 1978 he returned to the literary scene with three plays in one act, Public, private view, and Expression, which reflect, through his character Vanek, his own life and his problems as a writer.

Havel was jailed in 1979 for his activities against the Communist regime, but released in 1983 due to illness, and his plays after that mark a new trend. In Largo desolato (1985), the main character who is again a writer, is not a mere “dissident” but an individual confused and overwhelmed by the expectations of both friends and foes. Temptation, published in 1986, is based on the myth of Faust.

After that, Havel was drawn further into politics. He led the so-called Velvet Revolution, a peaceful movement that led to elections and democratic government, and at the end of 1989, was elected president. Then there was the “velvet divorce” when the Czech and Slovak regions split up. Havel was again elected president of the new Czech Republic in 1993 and served two terms until February 2003. During these years he wrote essays mainly on political themes. He believed that those who spoke freely and lived in the truth had revolutionary potential in any society. This was certainly true in his own life, where defending what he considered to be the truth ultimately led him to become president, just as it was in India where Mahatma Gandhi, following his own truth, aided the India to gain independence. In his Summer meditations, writing during his second term as president, Havel wrote: “Despite the political distress I face every day, I still have a firm belief that politics is not essentially bad business; and as far as it is, it’s only disreputable people doing it. in politics, you are destined for it.

Havel is not without its detractors. Being against communism, he was popular in the West, especially in the United States. He praised America’s role in the world and supported their action in Iraq. Thus Noam Chomsky finds his views “morally repugnant”, and he has several critiques in his own country. A controversial biography of Havel by John Keane, Vaclav Havel, A Political Tragedy in Six Acts, is also critical of him, although this in turn has come under heavy criticism for his lack of scholarship.

After and even during his presidency, he also assumed a broader role in seeking to promote human rights. Beginning in 1997, he organized Forum 2000, an annual conference to explore ways to end conflicts based on religion and ethnicity. Then, after a hiatus of several years, in 2007, he released another play called “Leaving” based on Shakespeare’s King Lear and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. It was then adapted for cinema.

Among his non-fiction books is a long essay, Power of the Helpless: Citizens Against the State in Central and Eastern Europe. The essay, written ten years after the 1968 Soviet invasion, is closely linked to Czech history, yet makes universal statements. What troubled him was the apathy of the citizens, their acceptance of the situation and their refusal to look for alternatives. Havel insists on the idea that one must “live in the truth”. The truth for him was personal, to look at what really mattered in life and to make decisions based on that. Instead, people try to fit in, they withdraw from decision-making, are content to watch TV, shop for groceries, and the like. Havel also criticized the Western world, for he said there, “People are manipulated in infinitely more subtle and refined ways. There was no brute force, but conformity and acceptance was the norm.

It is rare for a writer and political dissident to become president of a country. Despite his critiques, his works transcend a particular time and place, and Havel’s plays, available in translation, are worth reading. In Prague, the Vaclav Havel Library was created in his memory, and other monuments are dedicated to him in various parts of the world.

(A doctorate in ancient Indian history, the writer lives in Dehradun and is the author of over ten books. Opinions expressed are personal)

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